Last National Park of the year

From Denver, we headed north and west to Estes Park CO to visit Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), which will probably be the last NP for us this year. After Colorado, we make our way back “home” to the DC area to see family which means lots of people time, not much sightseeing time.

Approaching Estes Park CO

Approaching Estes Park CO

Estes Park is a nice little town right at the entrance of RMNP with a picturesque Main Street, lots of little stores and ice cream shops. About half-mile off Main Street is a tiny little building called the Donut Haus. They have amazing pastries and donuts, I had to stop there a few times. They open at 6am and close at noon, or earlier if they run out of inventory for the day. I thought I was so clever getting there by 9am on a Tuesday morning but they were almost cleaned out! During the week, the regulars stop in on their way to work so the pastries go fast. On the weekends, it’s a little more relaxed so you have more time to get the goodies. We did score some cinnamon rolls and pinecones (their version of bearclaws) a few times and those were fabulous! If you have a sweet tooth, you have to give this place a try.

Clan Dunbar

Clan Dunbar

Quite by accident, we found out the yearly Longs Peak Scottish Irish Highland Festival was during the weekend we were staying at Estes Park. It’s a huge Festival that takes over the town for the weekend with a parade on Saturday morning. While we didn’t attend the festival, we did enjoy the parade down Main Street. Looks like many different clans are part of the parade. I’m kicking myself because I forgot to look for the MacLeod clan (Highlander reference). We did see a lot of bagpiper bands and some military bands. For us, the oddest image was a police officer in a kilt riding a Segway down the street.

Due to the size of RMNP, we made a couple of trips into the park. Our timing coincided with the beginning of elk rut season, but unfortunately we didn’t see any during our visit. We designated one day for driving around the park and one day for visiting the main hiking areas. For the drive, we started at East Entrance by Beaver Meadows Visitor Center and took Rt 36, which meanders west.

We did do a short hike at Alluvial Fan to see the debris caused by the collapse of Lawn Lake Dam in 1982. On July 15, 1982, the dam collapsed and released 30 million cubic feet of water at once (the lake emptied in 1/2 hour). The flash flood killed 3 people and caused damage in the millions. Once the water reached the wider valley of Fall River, the huge boulders carried by the flood slowed and spread out, leaving an alluvial fan. Even 34 years later, the path of the water and debris is still clear. At this point there is no dam but there are some pretty falls coming over the alluvial fan and makes for a scenic area to rest.


Driving up Old Fall River Road

Shortly after Alluvial Fan, the road changes into packed dirt and gravel and becomes Old Fall River Road (one way travel only and closed in the winter). The road is definitely rough but if you have a high clearance vehicle, you should be fine. Actually some of the switchbacks are so tight that I was impressed that the larger pickup trucks were able to make the turn. The road ascends steeply and you are able to experience three different ecosystems on the way to the top: Montane (below 9000 ft), Subalpine (9,000-11,400 ft), and Alpine (11,400+). Each region has different types of trees, bushes, and animals depending on the ecosystem. It’s impressive that plants and animals can survive above 11,400 ft, I guess it is all about “adapt or die”.


Approaching the Alpine Visitors Center above the tree line

We stopped at the Alpine Visitors Center to enjoy the views (and grab some hot chocolate, it’s COLD that high up). From there, we took Trail Ridge Rd down to the South Entrance and had a picnic lunch. After lunch it was time to head all the way back to the East Entrance taking Trail Ridge Rd all the way back. There are some insanely gorgeous viewpoints along this road! You can see glacier lakes, peaks, canyons, and the continental divide.

One of the many amazing views along Trail Ridge Rd.

One of the many amazing views along Trail Ridge Rd.

We spent our second day closer to the east side of the park. Since parking is severely limited in the popular areas like Bear Lake, the park recommends leaving your car at the Park and Ride (located shortly after Moraine Visitor Center) and taking the shuttle buses. We took the shuttle to Bear Lake (yep, the parking lot was completely full) and took a nice stroll on the Bear Lake Loop (0.8 mile loop around the lake).

Halfway around Lake

Halfway around Bear Lake

The patches of brightly colored aspens changing for the fall contrasted beautifully with the green of the pines and the grey of the granite mountains. I can see why this is such a popular trail!

Bear Lake aspens beginning to change color

Bear Lake aspens beginning to change color

After Bear Lake, we took the shuttle to Glacier Gorge Trailhead and ambled to Alberta Falls. The trail is 1.7 miles with 200 feet of elevation gain, easy enough for most anyone to enjoy. The trail meanders through pines and aspens then opens up to Alberta Falls, a 30-ft waterfall. After the falls, the trail continues upward to Mills Lake and The Loch, but as we were feeling relaxed and completely unprepared for anything strenuous, we enjoyed the falls for a while then headed back down the trail. Rocky Mountain is a beautiful National Park with great overlooks and many hiking trails. This is a park definitely worth visiting again for us.


Alberta Falls

Rocky Mountain National Park is a good way to end our National Parks tour for 2016. Having lived near the east coast our whole lives, we’re still blown away by the scenic beauty we’ve seen in the west this year!

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  1. Anne Parker   •  

    Thanks for the report. Had hoped to get there last year, but plans changed… It’s now definitely back on the bucket list, thanks to your report!

    Safe travels eastward.

    — Anne

    • Kat   •     Author

      Excellent! It is beautiful and there are so many great hikes here. This is one we’d go back to again.

  2. Craig   •  

    We are headed up there to RMNP in early May on our way north from Tucson. I know this is an old post but where did you stay. Any recommendations?

    • Mike   •  

      There aren’t many good options in Estes Park. We stayed at Elk Meadow which was convenient but pricey and very dusty — we had to keep our windows closed most of the time or we’d have a layer of dirt on everything inside. It’s still probably the best bet in the area.

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